AI takes centre stage as Web Summit kicks off in Qatar

Held in the Middle East for the first time, the technology conference aims to connect entrepreneurs with investors from around the world.

The Web Summit will run from February 26 to 29
The Web Summit will run until February 29 [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – Under blocks of flashing lights, entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders converged in central Doha on Monday as Web Summit, one of the world’s biggest tech conferences, opened in Qatar’s capital.

The event, held in the Middle East for the first time, brings together participants from dozens of countries who, over four days, will be hoping to establish new connections, share insights and secure funds.

Kicking off proceedings, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani announced that the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund would invest more than $1bn in international and regional venture capital funds.

Dubbed “Fund of Funds”, the programme aims to foster innovation by attracting top international venture capital funds and entrepreneurs both to Qatar and the wider Gulf region.

The commitment to boost the start-up sector builds on Qatar’s aspiration to be a regional IT hub.

With “entrepreneurship leadership across the Middle East”, Qatar is “the perfect backdrop for Web Summit with its commitments to technological advancement, and its vibrant community of thinkers and creators”, Al Thani said at the conference.

Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani at Web Summit in Doha, Qatar
Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, at Web Summit in Doha, Qatar [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

The topic of artificial intelligence (AI) headlines this year’s forum, which marks the largest gathering of international start-ups in the Middle East at a time when the region reels from the spillover of Israel’s war on Gaza.

Both are topics that Amjad Masad, founder of Replit, an online programming community, feels passionate about.

“I’m a technologist at heart,” the Jordanian-American CEO, who has a Palestinian refugee father, said at the summit.

“And I think technology can be used for a force of good, but the situation in Gaza has nothing to do with technology – you can’t eat AI,” he added to roaring applause.

Trevor Noah speaking at at Web Summit in Doha, Qatar
Trevor Noah speaking at Web Summit in Doha, Qatar [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

The Web Summit’s headlining speaker on opening day was Trevor Noah, the former host of the Emmy-winning programme The Daily Show.

What is perhaps less known about the South African comedian is his pile-high investments in the technology sector – and that he is the “Chief Questions Officer” at tech giant Microsoft.

Noah’s role involves hosting a multi-episode series in which he discusses with a guest how AI is being used to solve global issues.

“I’ve never stopped loving tech and I’ve never stopped trying to learn all the ways we can use it effectively,” Noah said at the summit.

“I think we often [say], ‘will tech replace us?’ Well, I think that means we have to have a very limited definition of what ‘us’ is,” he added. “Technology has always replaced what people have done or how people have done it. But the people have remained and so I think the larger question we have to ask ourselves is, how does AI redefine what humans need or want to do? I think that’s going to be the bigger question.”

‘Globalisation bridge’

As more speakers took to the stage, entrepreneurs and investors from around the world began connecting at the sold-out event, with the flurry of QR code scans replacing the exchange of traditional business cards.

Indeed, Doha’s Exhibition and Convention Center is expected to transform into a hub of innovation and networking over the next three days.

Participants include the so-called “impact start-ups” that are focused on improving lives through tech advancement in healthcare and sustainable technologies.

Heidi Rus, managing director at United States-based Everest said she hoped to secure funding for her firm’s water plant in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, Alex Chernenko, the CEO of Translit, a start-up focusing on AI-based translations, will be speaking on a number of panels this week about the future of translation and AI.

“I’ll be talking about how communication is going to change with the help of artificial intelligence … Language barrier[s] [are] a challenge that should be resolved,” Chernenko, who flew to the conference from Ireland, told Al Jazeera.

Arezu Aghasey is scouting for new startups in the MENA region
Arezu Aghasey is scouting for new start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa region [Urooba Jamal/Al Jazeera]

For Arezu Aghasey, attending this year’s Web Summit is something of a full-circle moment.

She last took part in the forum a decade ago as a scholar selected to participate as a youth professional and is now at the conference in Doha to scout for start-ups to invest in, spearheading portfolio management at the venture capital firm Crea, from San Francisco in the United States.

“I’m focusing on finding startups [and] how I can take them from the MENA region, bring them to Silicon Valley, and vice versa,” Aghasey told Al Jazeera.

“So build a globalisation bridge.”

Source: Al Jazeera